A Blockbuster In The Making
Taking a look at some of the Rockets' must-see matchups from the upcoming 2013-14 season
HOUSTON - The NBA’s regular season is a grind. It is an 82-game marathon of a dissection designed to poke at, probe and uncover every team’s flaws and soft spots, all in an effort to separate the strong from the weak and the clubs that are built for the long haul from those ill-suited for anything more than short bursts of sustained success.
Over the course of that six-month slog, the storylines for some teams take on the tone and tenor of a soap opera; predictable, transparent plots that the viewer can pop in and out of anytime without missing much of importance. Others, however, keep you on the edge of your seat, demanding your daily attention while leaving its fan base transfixed and constantly wondering what will come next.
Is there any reason to wonder into which category the upcoming Rockets’ campaign is likely to be filed? You wouldn’t dare miss an episode of Breaking Bad’s final season and, likewise, there’s little reason to eschew any segments of the Rockets’ forthcoming schedule. With Dwight Howard and James Harden teaming up, every single game night now possesses the potential for something spectacular to occur. Harden might drop 50 one night, then produce a triple-double the next. Prefer blocked shots and big dunks? Howard promises to be a rim-protecting, rebounding and alley-ooping machine.
And that’s to say nothing of the other ascendant talent on hand in Houston. The Rockets were already one of the most eye-pleasing and entertaining teams in the league, even before Howard’s arrival. They played and put points on the board at a turbocharged pace, tied the NBA record for made 3s in a game, and finished with one of the 10-best point differentials in the league. Pair Howard with the natural progression that can realistically be expected of youth and you now have a team possessing enough compelling plotlines to keep viewers glued to their seats for the entirety of this season and beyond: Just how high is Chandler Parsons’ ceiling? What does the next chapter of Jeremy Lin’s remarkable hoops journey have in store? How will Omer Asik and Patrick Beverley build upon seasons that transformed them into fan favorites? Who will emerge from the Greg Smith/Terrence Jones/Donatas Motiejunas triad? Will rookie Isaiah Canaan prove to be the latest in the Rockets’ rapidly growing line of second-round steals?
All those questions and many more await answers that will begin filtering in on October 30 when the Charlotte Bobcats visit Toyota Center for the Rockets’ season premiere. But chances are you don’t to be sold on this team or this season. The star power and storylines sell themselves. So without further adieu, here are a dozen of the more delicious episodes we’re anxiously awaiting as Houston prepares to embark upon its own version of Game of Thrones.
Wednesday, October 30: vs. Charlotte Bobcats
The opening night opponent might not inspire awe and anticipation, but the opportunity to be on hand for the official launch of the Howard-Harden era certainly should (Note: they'll first hit the Toyota Center floor together during the Rockets' preseason opener against New Orleans October 5). Put another way: If nearly ten thousand fans were willing to endure Houston’s triple-digit heat and oppressive humidity just to get a chance to welcome Howard to the city back in July, how many more will be clamoring for tickets to see his debut performance in a Rockets uniform? Houston could be playing host to a team featuring a roster full of Bobcat Goldthwaits the night before Halloween and that game would still be the hottest ticket in town.
Thursday, November 7 and Wednesday, January 8: vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Going out on a massive limb here, but have a feeling these two games might be a wee bit emotionally charged – regardless of whether or not Kobe Bryant has returned from his late-season Achilles injury (or whether or not he’s following Howard on Twitter).
Saturday, November 9 and Saturday, March 29: vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Their matchups with the Lakers may very well attract more national attention, but from a big picture perspective Houston’s showdowns with the Clippers figure to be far more meaningful this season. The Lob City crew had itself a pretty decent offseason; heady stuff given the fact they won 56 games last season while finishing with the league’s third-best point differential. From a Rockets’ perspective, these two home dates should provide not only quality insight into how Houston matches up with one of the West’s heavyweights, but also a keen glimpse at the team’s in-season growth, development and evolution.
Saturday, November 23 and Thursday, March 20: vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
It’s easy to forget in the wake of their disappointing, injury-ravaged 31-win season, but Minnesota entered the 2012-13 campaign with justifiably high hopes of breaking into the upper crust of the Western Conference. With last season’s mulligan now in their rearview mirror, the T-Wolves will get another chance to break through this year with a re-tooled roster that has added Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer to the mix. Given good health, this can absolutely be a dangerous playoff team. And assuming Minnesota brings back restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic, a Rockets-Wolves showdown promises to include a delightful battle between Non the Destroyer and Houston’s answer to Superman.
Friday, November 29: vs. Brooklyn Nets
They went about their business in drastically different ways, but this matchup features a pair of teams who followed up first round playoff ousters with headline-grabbing summers that have now seemingly placed them in the title contention mix. One month into the season, we’ll not only get a chance to see how these two clubs stack up against each other but also a glimpse at how they're handling the occasionally bumpy path from “on paper” contender to real life results.
Friday December 6: vs. Golden State Warriors
Here’s hoping this becomes one of the league’s top new rivalries. Both clubs are ridiculously fun to watch and each made significant upgrades this summer that should raise the already high entertainment quotient another level or two. After a handful of heated meetings last season, the embryonic enmity between these two teams increased rapidly. Heck, it’s even been a talking point this summer (hopefully in between tutorials about how to properly defend the 3-point line).
Wednesday, December 18: vs. Chicago Bulls
A showdown with a back-in-business Derrick Rose and his Chicago Bulls? Yep, that definitely works as the kind of treat that helps put hoops junkies in the holiday spirit. The former MVP’s return to full health makes the Bulls title contenders once more, providing the Rockets with yet another gauge to see how close they are to gaining membership in that group.
Tuesday, December 31: vs. Sacramento Kings
The Rockets’ annual New Year’s Eve home date has become a fan favorite and for good reason: the 6PM tip-off allows those attending to catch the game and still have plenty of time afterward to revel in their preferred ways of ringing in the new year. Then there’s this: the Rockets never lose on New Year’s Eve (so long as they steer clear of the Warriors, that is). Houston has won five in a row and is 9-2 overall since it started its tradition of hosting games on December 31. The team’s only two losses during that stretch came at the hands of Golden State, so assuming the bugaboo is not a NorCal thing (or, you know, nothing more than some completely random and irrelevant bit of trivia) then the Rockets and their fans should like their chances to get the party started early when the Sacramento Kings come a-calling.
Thursday, January 16 and Friday, April 4: vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
While the budding Warriors-Rockets rivalry seems to generate more trash talk, Houston-OKC likely looms as the feud that has the legs to last. The two teams’ recent histories became interwoven in ways that continue to be discussed and debated on a daily basis in basketball circles thanks to the trade that brought Harden to Houston, and given the fact both clubs figure to play very prominent roles in the battle for Western Conference supremacy for the foreseeable future, that talk isn’t likely to abate anytime soon. The Rockets and Thunder have collaborated on several instant classics over the past two seasons and there’s little reason to believe they won’t treat fans to more of the same when they meet at Toyota Center in 2014.
Tuesday, January 28 and Monday, April 14: vs. San Antonio Spurs
Is this the season mighty San Antonio finally passes the torch to some other team? Apologies, I was contractually obligated to ask that question since it’s seemingly become a summer (and fall, and winter, and spring) tradition to do so. Fact is, until further notice the ageless Spurs remain just as much a standard bearer of excellence as they ever have, meaning these matchups promise to test the Rockets in ways few others can. And though it may be exceedingly premature to do so, it’s fair to wonder what sort of potential seeding implications might be on the line when these two presumed Western Conference powers meet in the Rockets' regular season home finale on April 14.
Tuesday, March 4: vs. Miami Heat
No need for lexical pyrotechnics or flowery prose here. This is the two-time defending champs’ one and only visit to Houston – unless a showdown of sorts just so happens to be required in June, of course …
Friday, March 7: vs. Indiana Pacers
Speaking of possible NBA Finals participants, one can’t overlook the Pacers who gave Miami all they could handle in the Eastern Conference Finals then followed that up by making a handful of understated yet savvy moves (including the acquisition of former Rocket and rightful fan favorite Luis Scola) that should help them become an even bigger threat in the season to come. Indiana’s squad might not come with the glitz and glamour of some other teams, but a matchup that includes Howard vs. Hibbert and Harden vs. George is way too good to miss.
And, just for the heck of it – and because the West is so freaking stacked with ridiculously talented teams – let’s make this list a baker’s dozen of can’t miss matchups:
Thursday, December 26 and Friday, January 24: vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Grit-and-grind versus pace-and-space. Gasol and Randolph versus Howard and Asik. John Hollinger versus Daryl Morey (sadly, not in a game of one-on-one though perhaps that can be arranged and placed on the undercard for fascinated fans ((raises hand)) to view pay-per-view style). Ho hum, just another marquee matchup within a blockbuster season that promises to be full of them. The show can't start soon enough.